The US Army sees itself in a transitional period. Unlike a decade ago, soldiers are training less today on how to conduct "stability" operations for a counter-insurgency campaign, and more on what the Army does best: fighting other armies.
But training is expensive and requires time and a lot of space. Training a gunner for an M-1 Abrams tank means reserving time on a limited number of ranges and expending real ammunition. So to lower costs and make training more efficient—in theory—the Army has adopted a variety of games to simulate war.
There's just a few problems. Some of the Army's virtual simulators sit collecting dust, and one of them is more expensive and less effective than live training. At one base, soldiers preferred to play mouse-and-keyboard games over a more "realistic" virtual room.
Then again, the Army has cooler games than you do. M-1 tank gunners, for example, can train inside a full-scale, computerized mock-up of their station called the Advanced Gunnery Training System, which comes inside a large transportable container.
Instead of looking through real sights down a range, the soldier squints through a replica and sees a virtual simulacrum of, say, an enemy tank. Push a button and the "cannon" fires.
The Army fields similar systems for the Stryker, a wheeled armored troop transport that fits an optional 105-millimeter gun. Soldiers train inside another simulated gunnery station for the M-2 Bradley fighting vehicle. Another system, Common Driver, simulates a variety of military vehicles.
There are simulators for the infantry, too. In one game called the Engagement Skills Trainer, soldiers lie prone and aim weapons with lasers at a screen that shows different targets, training the troops when to shoot and how to direct their fire. There is another simulator for artillery forward observers.
And there are full-blown video games pretty much like the civilian versions. The Army has one called Virtual Battlespace, which is a suped-up licensed adaptation of Bohemia Interactive's popular Arma series of computer games.
While it would be the understatement of the century to say that Virtual Battlespace and the Arma games are not like real combat, they are widely held as the most realistic tactical military games on the market.
The GAO is pushing the Army to better integrate these simulators into its training regimens. The Army concurs, and sees games as handy tools for making up skills lost in recent wars. In 2015, the Army spent more than $27 million on the virtual training devices.
"The recent focus on counterinsurgency operations has resulted in large numbers of soldiers who have not experienced or trained thoroughly on the tasks required to perform a broader range of military operations," the GAO reported.
And games are useful for training troops on procedures before they go to a live range. Think of it like practicing with a flight simulator before hopping into a real cockpit with an instructor.
But the Army simply has too many games, according to the GAO report, which studied the use of simulators by four Army brigade combat teams.
Take the Dismounted Soldier Training System, which has troops stand on rubber pads with heads-up displays over their faces and sensors attached to their arms and legs. Once hooked up, the soldiers act out various exercises in virtual environments.
When they move their arms, their virtual copy moves, too.
It's unnecessary to strap soldiers into an immobile vehicle and make them scan a wrap-around screen if they can accomplish the same basic tasks with a mouse and keyboard.
But this simulator has problems with "technical difficulties that degraded training … a limited ability for the Dismounted Soldier Training System to provide collective training above the squad level, and low usage rates across the Army," the GAO stated.
And instead of saving money, the system actually costs more—78 percent more—than a "comparable event in the live environment."
Likewise, other systems have fallen out of favor. For example, why practice driving in a simulator when you can pilot a real vehicle and practice field maintenance? If a vehicle breaks down in hostile territory, soldiers need to know how to fix it fast.
As it turns out, Common Driver "at three installations we visited, is not being used," the GAO reported. "Officials at two installations stated that soldiers who had used it found live training to be more effective." Army units cited the lack of ability to practice maintenance as a major obstacle.
And there is redundancy between simulators.
The Army has a system called the Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer, which puts soldiers inside a Humvee with a .50-caliber machine gun surrounded on all sides by a screen, giving a 360-degree view of an environment.
The idea behind the system is to teach soldiers how to operate within a convoy when it comes under an attack. But that can be done with Virtual Battlespace, which also scales better. If you want to bring in the whole platoon, you just need enough desktop computers.
Officials at one military base "stated that they believed the Virtual Battlespace was more effective in accomplishing training," the GAO noted. "As a result, the officials stated that the Reconfigurable Vehicle Tactical Trainer had low usage at that installation."
This is perhaps indicative of too much realism in some of the Army's games. It's unnecessary to strap soldiers into an immobile vehicle and make them scan a wrap-around screen if they can accomplish the same basic tasks with a mouse and keyboard.
So if you're looking for high-fidelity graphics and multiplayer that scales up to the platoon level, you might want to stick with the military version of Arma.